Monday, 13 April 2015

Pianist pushed freedom of speech too far                         

I recognize the importance of our freedom of speech but there are times when expressing them publicly are going too far. This article is about a woman who in my opinion, went too far in her public statements.

Valentina Lisitsa is a Ukrainian-American classical pianist who resides in North Carolina in the US. Lisitsa is among the most frequently viewed pianists on YouTube and is often praised as a highly commendable pianist. It doesn’t surprise anyone that she is sought after in many countries to give performances with various symphony orchestras. She was also invited to give a performance in Toronto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Despite putting her fingers on the piano keyboard, she also put her fingers on her computer keyboard and that is what resulted in her invitation to perform in Toronto being rescinded. Social media, which Lisitsa, 45, had used successfully to launch herself as a classical star made her known by her tens of thousands of online fans as the YouTube pianist and the Justin Bieber of classical music. I mention that last performer because he too went too far in his conduct off stage.

Lisitsa tweeted about the conflict in Ukraine that was seen as deeply offensive by Ukrainian media outlets. A tweet from October 27 reads: “Anonymous voter cri de coeur: ‘(a cry from the heart) Torn limbs, headless bodies on streets. This is 21st century, Ukraine? Die, Nazi bitch!” Another tweet, from June 1, 2014, drew a comparison between former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who had recently called for the West to provide arms to Ukraine and Down Syndrome Awareness Day.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Ukrainian-born Lisitsa said she doesn’t regret having unabashedly criticized her native country’s government on Twitter.

There is nothing wrong with criticizing a government publicly providing it is done tastefully. I think calling one’s country of birth a “Nazi bitch” is pushing the boundaries of common sense too far.

She added that her criticisms are aimed at the current regime and not the people of Ukraine. That being as it is, she should have said that instead of placing the word “Nazi bitch” immediately in front of the word, “Ukraine”.

She was born in Kyiv when Ukraine was under Soviet rule. Lisitsa has Polish and Russian heritage on her mother’s side and Ukrainian ancestry on her father’s. Growing up, she and her older brother Eugene spoke Russian with their parents. This may explain why she has sympathy for the Russian incursion into Ukraine and her objection of Ukraine government trying to oust them from her country of birth.

At 16, when applying for a passport, Lisitsa says she chose Ukrainian over Russian as her ethnicity, which caused a rift with her mother and grandmother. “I wanted to be Ukrainian,” she says, adding that when Ukraine gained independence, “it was exhilarating to be part of a new nation.”

This seems to conflict with her statement that “Ukraine is a primitive society that is not ‘civilized.  I, as many people with roots in Odessa, thought it barbaric to force the teachers of many ethnicities to wear the embroidered Ukrainian ethnic shirt.”  

She blamed Ukraine; a victim of Russian aggression, for the casualties caused by Putin’s invading pawns. If she used her brains properly, she would have realized that the Ukrainians were quite right to oust their previous corrupt president and replacing him with a more honest one. It was then that the Russian president Putin decided to make his illegal incursion into the Ukraine.

Lisitsa supports Russia’s pet project “Novorossiya” (“New Russia” that denotes Russia taking back the part of Ukraine that Russia controlled in the previous century) and thereby condones expansionism of the Russian Federation, heavily promoted by Vladimir Putin. Would she feel that way if her mother wasn’t of Russian heritage? Is this the woman that earlier had said about the Ukraine, ““I wanted to be Ukrainian.  It was exhilarating to be part of a new nation.”

She has been spewing her visceral hatred towards Ukraine and all things Ukrainian for years, after immigrating to the United States in the ‘90s. Lisitsa’s criticism may be sour grapes, caused by the fact that Ukraine never invited her to perform in her former homeland. 

Lisitsa Tweeted: “This is better: Dear informed Ukrainians! I will never get tired of reminding you that you are dog shit. Thank you for your attention.” Denigrating people of any nation with this type of hate speech is extremely offensive. No wonder they haven’t invited her to perform in Ukraine.

She tweeted, “I really think the whole former Ukraine is a site of a giant CIA experiment in mind-altering drugs” 

Her offensive commentary exhibits many trademarks of Nazi ideology— great disrespect for another nation’s culture, intelligence, and respectability, expansionism along with references to alleged mental illness that are  highly inflammatory allegations that are reminiscent of Hitler’s propensity to exterminate people that were deemed to be mentally ill. She appears to be very pre-occupied with existence of concentration camps in the Ukraine  by falsely claiming that they’re being built in the Ukraine. 

This is what she thinks of some of the people living in Ukraine. In one tweet, she wrote, “In a new European Ukraine, the camps will give the sub-humans (ethnic Russians) condemned to the gas chambers an opportunity to offset their carbon footprint.”

She has dedicated a number of her Tweets to her distaste for Obama’s activities, as well as NATO and the U.S. government. She also considers Vladimir Putin as a comrade. Lisitsa apparently views her own position in in a manner that would suggest that she is more suited to being a Russian citizen and not that of an American—a country that has treated her so well.  

The extensive collection of Lisitsa’s anti-Ukrainian Tweets contains obscene sexual scenarios, revolting graphics, comparisons of Ukrainians to people with Down Syndrome, rejoicing about the deaths of Ukrainian soldiers in Debaltseve, overt support for Russian terrorists in Ukraine, the use of derogatory slurs to demean Ukrainians and intentional falsehoods about alleged “organ harvesting” and besmirching the reputation of Nadezhda Savchenko, who was kidnapped and is now illegally imprisoned in Russia. 

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was absolutely right to cancel the several shows previously arranged by this obnoxious pianist Valentina Lisitsa because of her outrageous Tweets. TSO president Jeff Melanson defended his decision. He said, “Free speech is important, but when it's offensive and hurtful, that's another matter.” He said that hundreds of Torontonians wrote to him to complain about Lisitsa's postings on social media, which he called denigrating. Melanson cited posts that compared Ukraine’s leaders to dog feces and a photo that superimposed their faces on the testicles of pigs. She responded by asking this rhetorical question, “So am I calling myself dog feces?” Where does she get off claiming to be one of Ukraine’s leaders?

Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association on the other hand said, “While it's not uncommon for workers to be penalized for expressing opinions on social media that reflect poorly on their employer, it's difficult to make that case for Lisitsa. It's hard to see the connection between what she said and what the duties of her job are and how it would affect it. If the idea is just that the orchestra wants to avoid controversy, I don't find that a particularly compelling reason. The fact that maybe there would be some people protesting is again, not a reason to let her go.”  

I am a pianist who has performed on radio, television and stage and I can tell you that playing complicated pieces require intense attention. Could this woman really keep her mind on the piece she is playing when there are howls in the audience demanding that she leave? Can the players in the orchestra keep their minds on the music in front of them with voices in the audience screaming at the performer? Victor Borge, the world famous pianist/comedian told me in 1980 during a break when we were both being interviewed on television (for different shows) that when he was playing Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, members of the audience in the front row began to laugh when they saw his big bushy eyebrows going up and down, The members of the orchestra were un-nerved and began speeding up the music and left this very accomplished pianist several bars behind them. 

Some venues are accepting this vile woman as a guest soloist. If she is booed off the stage, that is her problem and that of the organizers that asked her to give a piano recital.

I have watched this young lady perform and she is a brilliant pianist and listening to her play Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto would be a real treat.  However, she must realize that although guest soloists should be free to speak their minds, they have to realize that when they perform with a symphony orchestra, they become the temporary representative of the orchestra. For example, if a guest soloist publicly said that homosexuals should be exterminated like they were by the Nazis, and the orchestra accepted the guest performer as a soloist, they are indirectly condoning their guest soloist’s outrageous statement. 

John Luk, minister of the Lawrence Park Community Church in north Toronto said that permission to use the church’s venue was requested by  Lisitsa but her request was not granted. His statement was; “It is our belief, as Christians, that we must be ambassadors of reconciliation, especially on pressing matters of race. For that reason we would not under any circumstances invite or condone a concert by Valentina Lisitsa at our church.”

Lisitsa’s refusal to accept responsibility for her public statements speaks volumes. Her odious hate speech remains unimpeded, in spite of her hollow claims of “censorship.” No regulator or government agency has insisted that this woman delete or modify any of her postings. That is because (unlike in Russia) she can continue to rant and rave her obnoxious statements. The arts community is also free to choose whether or not they wish to associate with this woman in any manner whatsoever once they become aware of her public racist, discriminatory and highly abominable views.

Our right to publicly speak freely with respect to our views on any subject is a gift from those that made and passed our laws in democratic countries. Alas, that right is perhaps one of the most abused freedoms we have. However, freedom of speech and freedom of expression does not give a person the right to publicly say things that are detrimental to individuals or society as a whole unless there are legitimate grounds to do so. When people have a problem publicly speaking in a proper manner—they have to be reined in. I don’t mean arrested. But declining an obnoxious and demeaning soloist’s offer to perform is in my opinion, the appropriate way to rein such a person in.   

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